This is an edited version of a talk Laurie Hertzel gave at the 2005 Nieman Seminar for Narrative Editors. Her remarks were part of a joint presentation with Rick Meyer, who spoke about developing characters.
Scenes are the backbone of narrative. They’re where the action of your story takes place, where the plot unfolds.
Here’s the thing to remember about scenes: You want the reader to feel like he’s right there with you. Scenes are all about action and movement and tension and detail. They should unfold moment by moment. It’s helpful to think in terms of making a movie or putting on a play: The curtain rises, the scene begins, your characters walk onto center stage and there’s action. They move through the scene, talking, fighting, eating, emoting, whatever. The curtain goes down, and the scene is over.
The curtain rises and a new scene begins.
You certainly can write a narrative that is one long scene – and if you’re working on a shorter, daily narrative, that’s probably appropriate. But for long narratives it’s more common to write a series of scenes. As you map out the story, there are a lot of things for you to consider: the overall shape of the story, the pacing and purpose of each scene and how the scenes play off each other, the climactic moment and how you lead up to it, and how much you tell afterward.
Here are six tips for crafting effective scenes.
Tip 1: Write with a Camera Angle
To make a scene vivid, think like a movie maker. Don’t try to describe everything; aim your camera. What do you want to zoom in on? Do you want to show the subject closely, intimately, slow down and build tension?
Or do you want to pull back, show more sweep, use a wider camera angle, so to speak – pan around the room or the park or the murder scene or wherever the scene is taking place – and show a fuller view?
Here’s an excerpt from “A Back Road’s Circles Tell Of Horrific Murder” by Raad Cawthon for The (Philadelphia) Inquirer. The scene uses a wider camera angle:
The circles, squares and arrows, painted in Day-Glo orange, stand out against the oozing dark tar and gravel of Huff Creek Road, a winding asphalt ribbon not much wider than a fully loaded pulpwood truck.
One … two … three.
The circles are of different sizes, some as small as a fist, others as big as a basketball. Beside the second circle, in the same orange paint, a county sheriff’s deputy wrote, “Keys.”
The shapes, the geometry of a brutal and bizarre murder committed here, begin on the road just after it crosses a heavy wooden bridge over the sluggish, brown and snaky waters of Huff Creek. On and on the orange shapes go, one following the other for almost three miles down a road that undulates through a slash pine forest eight miles east of Jasper, 100 miles north of Houston.
The Day-Glo orange made it easier for investigators to see and photograph the shapes, each of which surrounded or pointed to something that belonged to James Byrd Jr. – his clothes, his shoes, his skin.
Six … seven … eight.
Here’s an example of a tighter camera angle, from “Enrique’s Journey” by Sonia Nazario for the Los Angeles Times:
The day’s work is done at Las Anonas, a rail-side hamlet of 36 families in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, when a field hand, Sirenio Gomez Fuentes, sees a startling sight: a battered and bleeding boy, naked except for his undershorts.
It is Enrique.
He limps forward on bare feet, stumbling one way, then another. His right shin is gashed. His upper lip is split. The left side of his face is swollen. He is crying.
Gomez hears him whisper, “Give me water, please.”
The knot of apprehension in Sirenio Gomez melts into pity. He runs into his thatched hut, fills a cup and gives it to Enrique.
“Do you have a pair of pants?” Enrique asks.
Gomez dashes back inside and fetches some. There are holes in the crotch and the knees, but they will do. Then, with kindness, Gomez directs Enrique to Carlos Carrasco, the mayor of Las Anonas. Whatever has happened, maybe he can help.
Here’s a case of zooming in close. It’s from “Rim of the New World” by Anne Hull for The Washington Post:
The driver of the car has three piercings through his lip and eyebrows. “Only in Stockbridge,” Cisco says. “They a disgrace to Atlanta.” His co-worker, Karl, a black high school senior, nods in agreement. “You know that.”
The assembly line of humanity keeps rolling forward. One man is covered in tattoos: animals, a spider web and a swastika. His female passenger is also a mural of ink. A baby is smiling from the car seat. The driver passes his money up to Cisco. Each knuckle on one hand is tattooed with a letter: S-K-I-N.
Cisco turns away from the window. Keeping his voice low, he tells Karl, “That man got a Nazi tattoo.” Karl leans over to steal a look. The customer senses Cisco and Keith gawking but his face reveals no emotion. Cisco gives the man his ice cream cone, mocha-colored fingers wrapped around the white napkin that covers the cone, and into the outstretched knuckles that spell S-K-I-N.
Notice that Anne Hull’s camera was aimed out of the drive-through window and into the car, and then it slowly zoomed in on the moment that the ice cream cone exchanged hands. At the end of that scene, all you see are two hands – one mocha-colored, one tattooed, both reaching for the cone.
Here’s one I wrote that didn’t work; the camera went all over the place. It’s from “Canada Familiar Yet Foreign” in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune:
When we got to Square Saint-Louis, I kicked off my shoes. Water from a tiered fountain splashed gently, and beds of white, violet and red flowers glowed in the afternoon sun. Across the tree-lined street stood old rowhouses with wrought-iron balconies and stained-glass windows. Classical music poured from the open door of the park’s cafe, where we sat at an outside table.
I shut my eyes and lifted my face to the sun. I was consumed with beauty and peace. I heard a foreign voice, felt a shadow. I opened my eyes.
A disheveled-looking young man stood at our table. He wore a scruffy beard and dirty jeans. “I’m sorry, we don’t speak French,” I said.
“That’s OK,” he said, switching languages adeptly. “I can ask in English. Can I have 95 cents?”
Bilingual panhandlers. Only in Montreal.
Tip 2: Use Both Scene and Summary
Keep in mind that print journalists have a tool that movie makers and TV producers don’t have. Except for the rare instances when they use voice-over narration, movies and TV shows are exclusively scene. Scene is their only tool because they rely completely on what can be shown through sight and sound.
But print writers have another tool. They can use summary. It’s useful to know the structural difference, so you can decide if something is worthy of a scene or if it can be dispatched in summary. A shorthand way to look at the difference between scene and summary is to think of the difference between “showing” and “telling.” You tell in summary. You show in scene.
Scene is used when you want to put the reader in the moment, walking right beside you, seeing everything you see, immersed in a specific moment with specific action. Scenes are told in real time. You see the events as they are unfolding. They have specific locations. You can picture them taking place. They have action and characters and dialogue and detail. To report well for scene, you have to really burrow in with great detail.
Summaries cover spans of time. They stitch scenes together, getting you from one to the next. The summary is usually shorter. It’s less specific, more general and global. It helps skip you ahead in time, and fills the reader in on stuff he needs to know but doesn’t necessarily need to see in detail. If you have a minor event that leads up to an important scene, use summary for the first event and then let the important event unwind as a scene.
You can combine the two – start with summary, and then move into scene, as in this example from “Gateway to Gridlock” by Louise Kiernan for the Chicago Tribune:
You can attend mass at O’Hare International Airport. You can get a massage, play a game of pool, rent a laptop, get your broken ankle X-rayed, buy a suitcase or a set of Michael Jordan-endorsed golf balls, or take your children to see a life-size model of a Brachiosaurus. You can do almost anything you can do in any small city in the United States.
But what most of the 180,000 people who pass through the airport’s four terminals every day want to do is leave.
That is why, at 10 a.m., Erik Madsen, a stocky man who works as a supermarket manager, stands in his sandals and socks and points quizzically at the window behind United Gate B22.
The window shows blue sky. It does not show the plane that is supposed to take him, his wife, Tonya, and their 7-month-old son, Jacob, home to Ft. Wayne, Ind.
The first flight the Madsen family was supposed to take, as they made their way home from a family visit in Denver, was canceled because of mechanical problems. Now, this one, which the gate agent told Madsen just 15 minutes ago would leave on time, has been canceled, too, because of the weather.
Here’s an example of scene broadening to summary, from “The Lost Youth of Leech Lake” by Larry Oakes for the Star Tribune:
Darryl Headbird remembers getting a good grip on the bat and adjusting his stance. He stood next to the bed in the darkened room. His father’s eyes were closed. Darryl could hear his rhythmic breathing and see his chest rise and fall. Darryl, 14, raised the bat above his head. But a sudden twinge of concern stopped him.
What if he doesn’t die after the first swing?
He lowered the bat and thought. Then he tiptoed out of the little house where he lived with his father on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
The night was black; it was well after midnight on May 25, 2001. Darryl whistled their chained dog over to where he stood and patted its head. The nameless brown dog lay down at his feet in the dark.
Darryl took a step back and swung the bat. The sound of the dog’s skull splintering reminded him of the noise a cracker makes when bitten, he said later. More significant to him, though, was the way the dog collapsed and died without a whimper. He dragged the warm, limp carcass through the back yard and heaved it into the brush. Then he walked back into the house, bat in hand.
The Leech Lake Indian Reservation is a place of breathtaking natural beauty. Majestic stands of pine ring three of Minnesota’s largest lakes.
Tourists come here to fish, hunt or snowmobile in a place where bald eagles soar above sugar-sand beaches.
But in the midst of this tremendous beauty, there is tremendous misery. Here, alarming numbers of Indian children are lost to alcohol, drugs, prison and violence. Leech Lake is not the only Minnesota tribe facing such problems. But lately the reservation has become an especially violent place, where murders are no longer surprising. The Leech Lake Reservation is, statistically, among the worst places in Minnesota to grow up.
The difference between scene and summary may seem obvious to you. But it may not. A lot of journalists read a lot and absorb stuff on the sort of cellular level and unconsciously mimic the techniques they’ve seen. I think it’s helpful if you can also understand the structure behind it, so you know why something goes awry when it does.
If you’re just starting out as a writer, you may need to have these distinctions laid out for you. You may tell everything in summary, skipping over the details and just giving the gist of what happened rather than laying it out, moment by moment. Try reading your draft to see if it seems to be going around and around the story, describing it but not getting inside of it. It might be that you’re stuck in summary.
Once you get the hang of scene, you may go the other direction – making everything a scene, laying everything out in excruciating detail, well beyond what the story warrants.
Your job is to figure out when to use one device and when to use the other. In narrative, you’ll work primarily in scene. But you still have to be judicious. One thing I tell writers is, “Think of stepping stones rather than a sidewalk. The reader will follow you. You don’t have to show them every step of the way.”
In other words, don’t describe everything – just the significant details.
Tip 3: Use Telling Details and Metaphor
Even when you’re going moment by moment, you’re still choosing which details you want to include in the story. Make sure they have meaning. You want telling details, not random details.
In the lede of the Leech Lake story, where Darryl Headbird is deciding whether or not to bash his father’s head in with a baseball bat, Larry Oakes didn’t spend a lot of time describing the bedroom. You see the boy with the bat, and the sleeping father, and that’s about it. When the scene moves outside, you see the black night and you hear the crunch of the dog’s skull. That’s all you need. I had pushed Larry to get the name of the dog – I thought it would add even more emotion to the scene if you knew the poor dog’s name. But it turned out that Darryl hadn’t bothered to name the dog. So the fact that the dog was nameless became an important, telling detail – a more telling detail than if the dog had had a name.
To capture a sense of place, describe what you see, smell, feel – use all your senses, not just sight. But you don’t want big hunks of description dropped into the middle of a story, slowing the action to a stop and boring the reader. You want to fold the description into the action.
Here’s an example from “Lillian And Julia: A Twilight Of Fear” by N. R. Kleinfield for The New York Times:
They went out late. It was ugly weather. Six below zero in the Brooklyn night. Wind took garbage into the air. A blizzard was in the forecast. It was Lincoln’s Birthday, 2003, in Brighton Beach. Not a night for humankind, but the sisters, one 73 and the other 70, didn’t get holidays off, didn’t get snow days.
In years of miserable low points, it was one of the lowest. As they had done the day before and the day before that, Lillian and Julia hobbled out to Coney Island Avenue, a lineup of chromatic storefronts, to beg from strangers in their cars. They were known out there, regulars among the mendicants. The money was for their bilious nephew and his crack habit, their own blood who was smoking up their lives. He had already cost them their house, their savings, their dignity. “I need one more,” he would tell them when he desired a hit, “one more.”
Not comply and he would fly into crazed tirades, blacken an eye, bruise their ribs. It had been this way for years, since their lives stopped being comprehensible.
It was always a dice-toss what they got when they panhandled, but what odds did they have on a brutal night like this? They had just started their grueling shift when the police herded them home. Now what? He was rambling around, that glazed look in his eyes. No money in the house. No food. Despondent, Lillian told Julia she was going over to the hospital, to sit all night in the waiting room. She had gone there before, a temporary sanctuary during her black hours.
It had gotten to be 3 in the morning. She craved a coffee, so she re-entered the cold, tried one car and heard the whoop-whoop of the police again. She pushed on home, back to her sister, to that dour apartment, with all that was wrong. And they slept without dreams or any notion of a tomorrow. Soon would come the frosted Brooklyn dawn. Then he would send them out again to the cars and the strangers.
These five paragraphs do a lot of work. They set the scene. They introduce the main characters – the two elderly sisters and their “bilious” nephew. They show you the central complication of the story. They set a grim mood. They start the action and move forward in time. The scene starts at some undetermined “late” hour on Lincoln’s birthday, 2003. You see the sisters going out, Lillian going to the hospital. Then it’s 3 a.m., then Lillian goes home and it’s dawn.
You also get a hint of backstory – Kleinfield tells us that this is something that has happened before, that the sisters have been doing this long enough to lose their house, to be beaten up, to be beaten down. That’s a lot of information for five paragraphs. But Kleinfield does it gracefully, moving out of the scene briefly for a bit of backstory and summary and then back into the scene again. He’s completely in control.
And that’s an important thing: When you’re working on an ambitious narrative, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed. It seems like the enormous amount of material will swallow you up. You need ways to control your material rather than be controlled by it.
Understanding structure is one way to gain control: Narrative is told in chronological order, but you can have flashbacks. Knowing when to break from the chronology helps. It also helps to know that you can have parallel tracks of narrative – maybe alternating, maybe not completely balanced, but two stories that move forward in time in different places and with different characters. At some point the two come together.
Tip 4: Vary Your Pace
You don’t want all of your scenes to move at the same steady pace. You don’t want to give every fact and action the same emphasis as all the other facts and actions. Slow down for crucial and dramatic moments. Let the moment unfold with some tension.
It takes a fraction of an instant to fire a gun. But in “The Lost Youth of Leech Lake,” the moment Darryl fired the gun was important. So we gave it four paragraphs. We slowed down the moment to add to its power:
That night, he crept up and put the muzzle of the Remington pump shotgun an inch or two away from his sleeping father’s head.
Heart pounding, he watched his father’s chest rise and fall. He held his breath and squeezed the trigger.
A quick flash lit his father’s face and a loud bang sounded, followed by a high-pitched ringing in Darryl’s ears and the sharp, expanding smell of burnt gunpowder.
And then, silence.
But when you have fast-paced action, you’ll want shorter sentences and a more clipped pace, to intensify the feeling that you’re trying to convey. Again, from “Leech Lake”:
Carol ran to the van. Darryl bounded after her. Run, Carol! Gene remembers yelling as he tried to block Darryl, who pushed past.
But the van was locked.
Carol ran on down the highway, Darryl at her heels. Both Sierra and Gene saw him grin as he raised the knife.
With the second stab, Carol felt everything below her shoulders become dead weight. Gritty pavement rose and smacked her in the face.
I can’t move! she shouted. Gene rammed his body into Darryl’s and then fell on top of Carol. He expected to die there with his wife.
Tip 5: Move Forward and Backward in Time
A single scene, by and large, progresses chronologically. That is, a scene begins at a specific point in time and moves forward, moment by moment, to another specific point. Sometimes a writer includes a flashback to give history and/or context. A really skilled writer might move forward in time. As long as you are absolutely clear as to what you’re doing, as long as you are skillful enough not to lose the reader, you can do this. It’s hard.
A Dan Barry column from The New York Times is a beautiful exercise in control. Barry wanted to tell the story of a woman who was standing on the roof of a burning house clutching her baby. As the flames licked higher, a stranger urged her to throw him the baby. That’s the story that Barry wanted to tell. But he only had about 850 words, and there were details outside of that one tight scene that he needed to work into the story. So he played around with time. He set up the scene and then broke away at a crucial moment – the moment the woman was deciding whether or not to throw the baby – to back things up and give us some information on the stranger.
Barry wrote the story a few days after the fire, and there had been developments that he needed to work into the piece. So toward the very end of the piece, he broke away from the story again, at the same crucial moment, and this time went forward in time. And then he circled back to that crucial moment again and finished the piece. It’s a beautiful example of being in complete control of the clock.
From “Miss a Catch? Life Goes On, Ordinarily” by Dan Barry for The New York Times:
(We’re at the pivotal moment:) “Listen,” he told the crying young mother. “The fire’s on the second floor now. Throw the baby to me.”
Then it moves to:
In the minutes, hours and days to come, so much would happen.
Firefighters, as many as 175, would spend four hours reining in the four-hour blaze. Investigators would determine that an overloaded electrical cord had caused the fire. A demolition team would raze the damaged house, leaving a dirt lot dotted with charred wood.
And young Tiara would be in attendance at Calvary and St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church for the funeral of her grandmother, Beverly Joseph Walkes, a native of Barbados, who had spent her last moments rousing others to safety.
But none of this was known yet to the mother on the roof or to the man on the ground. The child sailed through the Midwood air and landed safely in the arms of an old football player, who would say later that he cradled his catch as though she were his own.
One thing Barry is doing here, by the way, is playing around with the climactic moment of the story. The climax is the deciding moment, right before someone acts. It’s the moment of decision. In Barry’s story, it’s the instant the mother is forced into her choice: Will she throw her baby? Barry, to keep the tension going, delays resolving this central question. Instead, he brings the column to that moment, and then breaks away for backstory (not included in the excerpt above). Then he returns to that moment again, and breaks away for – let’s call it the “fore-story,” which is in the excerpt. Finally he returns to the moment a third time, and this time he resolves it.
Tip 6: Know Where to End Your Scene
There has to be a sense of completion, but you don’t want it to feel too complete; you want the reader to keep reading.
Here’s an example from “Something’s Got to Give” by Darcy Frey for The New York Times Sunday Magazine:
Sometimes it is the Federal Aviation Administration’s ancient equipment that messes with a controller’s head – a radar scope from the 1960’s going dark with a dozen planes in the sky, or a dilapidated radio blowing out.
A few years ago, a controller guiding 10 jets in a great curving arc toward Newark suddenly lost his frequency just as he had to turn the pilots onto the final approach to the runway. Watching in helpless horror as his planes careered farther and farther off course, the controller rose from his chair with an animal scream, burst into a sweat and began tearing off his shirt. By the time radio contact was re-established – and the errant planes were reined in – the controller was quivering on the floor half naked, and was discharged on a medical leave until he could regain his wits.
Every day that the controllers come to work, they ask themselves if this will be the shift of their unmaking, and on the Sunday after Thanksgiving they are performing the full gamut of rituals to ward off doom. One controller stands and paces in tight circles while issuing commands; one drops to his knee, his nose touching the glass; one taps the scope with a finger; one holds himself together by singing out loud. Because the traffic is so heavy tonight, they all take chow at their scopes – the 12 controllers who handle the airspace over Newark Airport shoveling takeout Chinese into their mouths while issuing their commands. “US Air 512, descend and maintain 4,000 – Hey, who’s got the plum sauce? – start down now, no delay!”
Just as the holiday traffic reaches its peak, Tom Zaccheo looks down the bank of radar scopes to see who’s closest to flaming out and spots Joe Jorge, the breathless trainee, falling dangerously behind in his commands. “Hey rookie, what’s wrong down at the end there, rookie!'” Zaccheo jeers mercilessly. Jorge looks over and, emulating the veterans, gives a gruff, fearless chuckle. But he turns right back to his scope – “Jetlink 3723 turn left heading 080 – traffic off your 2 o’clock!” He doesn’t have a second to spare.
Now doesn’t that make you want to keep reading?